by | Feb 18, 2024 | Isabella Maldonado | 3 comments

By Isabella Maldonado

What do Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Beyoncé Knowles, Steve Jobs, and Kobe Bryant have in common? They all had to overcome shyness, public challenges, or inner struggles to perform at the highest levels—while the world was watching and judging their every move—and conceal their silent internal battle at the same time.

A couple of years ago, I read Todd Herman’s book, The Alter Ego Effect, which discusses how successful people have had to conquer their fears and limitations. In his book, Herman discusses techniques for calling on a self-created persona to help get past extreme shyness, public judgment, personal troubles, or self-doubt. I found the concept fascinating and did more research.

It turns out there have been studies on what is referred to as “The Batman Effect,” which provides further insight into the phenomenon. The BBC did a story on a team of child psychologists who asked young subjects to perform a boring task, or a solve a problem with no solution. The control group was simply given these instructions, but other kids were encouraged to adopt the traits of a superhero. Some were even provided with props, like a cape or a mask. Those children who dressed up as characters like Batman were able to stick to the task demonstrably longer than the control group. 

The Alter Ego Effect, also know at The Batman Effect, is a book written by Todd Herman

Batman of Batman Begins

When you think about it, the character they embody, The Batman, is himself an alter ego of Bruce Wayne. Bruce is a reclusive billionaire with personal demons based on his tragic past, and he dons a disguise and uses a lot of high-tech gadgetry to become the “caped crusader.” So if he didn’t have the mask on, would he be able to morph into the flawed hero so many have come to love? Batman Begins has an in-depth treatment of his origin story, and it’s an excellent treatment of how this occurred.

In the adult world, a famous example of this technique is Beyoncé, who created an alter ego she named Sasha Fierce. Beyoncé had grown up in a conservative religious family and sang gospel music in church as a girl. When she first rose to stardom, she had trouble envisioning herself as a gorgeous, talented, confident woman who owned the stage while massive crowds cheered her on. Beyoncé spoke about her alter ego in an interview with Oprah in 2008.

So she became Sasha Fierce, describing how she would get into the role as she put on her clothes before each performance. She became Sasha, who then strutted onto the stage like she owned it. When the crowd went wild, Sasha reveled in the adulation. These days, she says she no longer needs to embody Sasha, but that alter ego helped her transition.

Beyoncé on stage as Sasha Fierce.
Beyoncé used the Batman Effect when she created her alter-ego.

Kobe Bryant, The Black Mambe, cover.

Herman also shares the story of Kobe Bryant, who was going through intense personal turmoil, including very public scandals, at a critical point in his career. He had to keep his head in the game and could not be distracted by thinking about everything going on in the tabloids while he was on the court. So he created an alter ego he called the Black Mamba. When it was time to play, the cool, ruthless, efficient Black Mamba went out onto the court. Kobe Bryant revealed how he created his alter ego in his autobiographical documentary, Muse, in 2015. He remained totally focused on the game, and nothing bothered him while he was in that persona

According to Todd Herman, who now has a business coaching high achieving athletes, artists, and executives, anyone can adopt a secret alter ego to up their mental game and perform at a level they would not have thought possible in their usual frame of mind. 

According to an article in 20/20 magazine, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t need vision correction, but wore non-prescription glasses when he wrote his speeches because they made him feel distinguished. Interestingly, he was rarely photographed in clear glasses (there are several of him in sunglasses though) so he must have wanted to channel a feeling of erudition in private as he carefully crafted speeches designed to change the world. A pair of these glasses is on display in a special MLK exhibit at the Atlanta airport.

Factoid: "MLK Jr.'s actual glasses on display at the Center for Non-Violent Social Change." and his glasses and their case below. 
MLK wore non-prescription glasses to feel distinguished, dabbling in the Batman Effect.

Steve Jobs and Mahatma Gandhi side by side, wearing the same glasses.

There’s also a story about Steve Jobs, who changed his eyewear after being ousted from the board of Apple in 1985. In the wake of that turmoil, he changed several things, but most visibly, he began wearing round, wire-rimmed glasses. He explained that he was emulating the iconic specs of the person he admired most: Mahatma Gandhi. Twelve years later, Jobs was back in the top spot at Apple.

So, how can this concept help the rest of us? 

In the book, Todd Herman mentions a female executive who needed a boost of confidence to speak up at high-level meetings. After some soul-searching, she decided that Wonder Woman wouldn’t be cowed no matter how tough the audience was. So she purchased a gold bracelet that reminded her of Wonder Woman’s wrist cuffs and wore it to high-level meetings. No one was the wiser, but it reminded her to be confident and bold when presenting her ideas. Sure enough, top level execs began to take notice, resulting in her promotion.

Alter egos can be real people as well. One executive connected with his grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor who was completely unflappable and handled any emergency with quiet strength.

I considered the notion of the Batman Effect, or the Alter Ego Effect, wondering if channeling Edgar Allen Poe, Agatha Christie, or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would up my mystery-thriller writing game. I suppose I could wear a deer-stalker hat at the keyboard.

Isabella Maldonado: Author of Looking for a Real-Life Hero

Wall Street Journal bestselling and award-winning author Isabella Maldonado wore a gun and badge in real life before turning to crime writing. A graduate of the FBI National Academy in Quantico and the first Latina to attain the rank of captain in her police department, she retired as the Commander of Special Investigations and Forensics. During more than two decades on the force, her assignments included hostage negotiator, department spokesperson, and precinct commander. She uses her law enforcement background to bring a realistic edge to her writing, which includes the bestselling Special Agent Nina Guerrera series (which is being developed by Netflix for a feature film starring Jennifer Lopez), the Special Agent Dani Vega series, and the Detective Veranda Cruz series. Her books have been translated into 22 languages.

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  1. Karna Small Bodman

    What a fascinating summary of ways these incredible leaders got there!! As you mention, I too wonder if I could don an outfit and write better stories — come to think about it, I put on a bathing suit every day to swim laps “a la Esther Williams” in the old movies — and I do get alot of plot ideas in the pool. Thanks for a great blog!

    • Jenny Milchman

      This is fascinating! Sometimes I feel the opposite problem…that the world itself is fanged no matter how I try to strut through it. But I suspect those may be two sides of the same coin. What a thinking post. Thank you!

  2. Lisa Black

    That is an excellent idea!!! I have to consider that as I’m at a point in my life where my self-confidence is, not at rock bottom, but definitely sagging!